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October 30, 2008

School aids preschoolers with impaired hearing

From: Seattle Post Intelligencer - Oct 30, 2008


LAKEWOOD, Wash. -- In teacher Lisa Hough's classroom, pictures of letters loaded in a choo-choo train chug across the wall, and the clatter of rambunctious preschoolers livens the morning lessons. It's a typical preschool class almost.

A poster, tacked on a bookcase at kids' height, spells out the alphabet in sign language. As Hough goes over the day's activities with her pint-sized students she asks, "Did we do coloring today?" while fluttering her fingers against her chin. That's the sign for coloring.

One by one, the youngsters respond, "Yes, we did coloring" out loud and in American Sign Language, and check off "coloring" on their daily planner.

This is a typical day in a new preschool for deaf and hard-of-hearing children at Carter Lake Elementary School on McChord Air Force Base.

The Clover Park School District started the preschool class this fall, the first time it's offered a hearing-impaired program, said Ann Almlie, Clover Park's director of special education.

The Lakewood-area district enrolls 12,000 students, including 15 to 20 deaf or hard-of-hearing children, a year. But because few of the hearing-impaired students are in the same grade, the district generally arranges for those needing full-time specialized instruction to attend programs in the larger Tacoma and Puyallup districts.

But with enough hearing-impaired 3- to 5-year-olds in Clover Park to make a program viable this year, Almlie said: "We didn't want them to travel so far. Special-education laws say it's our responsibility to provide programs for our children; the only time we don't is when we don't have a program to provide them services."

Since most of the youngsters have a parent in the military and live on Fort Lewis or McChord, the district housed the program at Carter Lake Elementary.

Five 3- and 4-year-olds with hearing problems and two "peer model" preschoolers with normal hearing attend the free 2 1/2-hour preschool sessions four mornings a week. The goal is to give the kids enough of a head start to eventually enter general education classes.

Two older, hearing-impaired children have the help of an interpreter when they attend regular kindergarten in the mornings at Carter Lake, then spend afternoons with Hough.

It's benefiting Carter Lake's general student body as well, as they learn about another language and culture, said Principal Paul Douglas. Some staff members are learning sign language from a class interpreter.

"Students beg teachers to share signs with them so they can play with our deaf and hearing-impaired students," Douglas said.

With the program nearer to his home on Fort Lewis, 4-year-old Jonathan Ferguson now rides the bus for 15 minutes, instead of enduring last year's 45-minute bus excursion to the hearing-impaired preschool at Zeiger Elementary on South Hill, said his mother, Theresa Ferguson.

"The whole program is wonderful, the resources they have available and the teachers are fantastic," Ferguson said. "We chose to go to Clover Park because of her."

Hough taught Jonathan and other youngsters at Zeiger's preschool last school year.

"I have an advantage because I've been hard of hearing all my life and deaf for over 11 years," Hough said. "I use a lot of those experiences to help the students, knowing what the challenges are with learning."

And like many of her students, Hough has a cochlear implant, a surgically inserted electronic device that provides a sense of sound to people who are profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing. Using a cochlear implant, however, requires training and doesn't necessarily lead to normal processing of sound.

"I still can't tell the difference between a fire alarm and a phone ringing," Hough said.

The highest academic hurdle for hearing-impaired children is learning language and vocabulary, the foundations of reading and writing, Hough says. It's tough to grasp abstract concepts, the meaning of prepositions, and differences in tense if you don't regularly hear them.

"A normal, developing child has had so much auditory input from birth on up," she said. "You'd be surprised how many don't know nursery rhymes or don't know how to sing their ABCs because they can't hear; (still) a lot of them have some verbal speech."

Many students never catch up to their peers. The median reading comprehension level of deaf and hard-of-hearing 17- and 18-year-olds is at the fourth-grade level, according to the Gallaudet Research Institute.

"That's why I'm very passionate that my children aren't in those statistics," said Hough.

A gregarious, dynamic woman who works on the side as a clown, Hough simultaneously signs while speaking so that students will learn to sign, lip-read and practice hearing and speaking.

An interpreter assists in each class, and a speech-language therapist provides intensive training to students twice a week. Though their hearing abilities vary, Hough says each of her students can hear a little with a hearing aid or a cochlear implant.

Hough makes each activity and interaction with the kids an opportunity for engaging instruction. During snacktime last week, Hough wore a silly hat topped with a bread-loaf-sized, yellow-and-blue stuffed fish, in keeping with the week's focus on the letter "F."

She individually asked each child to name the animal on her head and verbally count Goldfish crackers as she laid them on a numbered card.

She and 3-year-old Tanner Thompson said together, "One, two, three, four, five."

"You need to work on fuh-iii-vuh," she said, stretching out the word and blowing lightly on his upheld hand so he could feel the "F" sound.

He enunciated "five" more clearly.

"Good job! Give me a high-five," Hough said to the pleased youngster. They slapped hands.

Ferguson says Hough's personal touch and the Clover Park and Puyallup preschool programs have made a "drastic difference" in her son Jonathan's development. Since starting preschool last year, he's learned to say and to sign letters, colors and numbers, and to socialize with other kids. Now he's teaching Mom and Dad new signs.

"With her being hearing-impaired, she understands exactly what their problems are and how they're feeling," Ferguson said of Hough. "My son loves her so much. He hugs and kisses her, blows her kisses. He's excited to be there."


Information from: The News Tribune,

© 2008 Seattle Post-Intelligencer